For shrinking and 3-D-printing chemical rockets. In 2014, Aerojet Rocketdyne led the charge in two of the biggest trends in rocketry. In April, the California firm won a NASA contract to develop a compact rocket for use in Cubesats, part of a smaller, more affordable class of satellites that are increasingly in demand. That project could lead to the first chemical rocket in a CubeSat, whose current, lower-power electrical engines limit their range of missions. And in June, Aerojet demonstrated a rocket made entirely from 3-D-printed components, a process that reduced manufacturing costs by 65 percent.
For being called up to the space-plane majors. In July, DARPA awarded contracts to three companies to develop competing versions of a next-generation space plane. Two of those firms were the usual suspects—the aerospace giants Boeing and Northrup Grumman. But the third was California-based Masten Space Systems, a comparatively tiny company best known for its promising Xombie rocket, whose vertical landing capability could let spacecraft set down with a controlled burn (instead of crashing or dumping into the water). As part of DARPA’s space plane project, Masten will turn its focus on reusability towards the design of a vehicle that can deploy satellites at a lower cost than today’s single-use rockets.
For drafting jet fighters as satellite launchers. Compared to the other deals that Boeing’s space division signed in 2014, the $30.6M contract to build a plane-launched rocket for DARPA seems barely worth mentioning. Then again, it’s one of the company’s most inventive and forward-looking proposals to date, a 24-foot vehicle that would be carried to 40,000 feet by an F-15E fighter jet, before powering itself into orbit. By burning jet fuel instead of rocket fuel for the first leg of the flight, the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access could cut the costs of launching microsatellites.
For fostering trans-Atlantic interest in hypersonic flight. U.K.-based Reaction Engines was already years into in an ambitious project to develop a British space plane when the U.S. Air Force came sniffing around. In January of last year, the two organizations signed a cooperative research and development agreement, based around Reaction’s air-breathing hypersonic rocket, the SABRE. Though the Pentagon’s interest is apparently on high-speed flight within the atmosphere, the extra resources provided could speed the creation of those engines, which are a key component in the U.K.’s planned Skylon space plane.
For keeping an eye on the junk-filled skies. Lockheed Martin landed one of the year’s biggest aerospace industry contracts, a $914 million deal to build a space fence. In reality, the project is more surveillance system than defense measure, with Lockheed scheduled to begin construction on a radar array in 2015 which will track some 200,000 objects orbiting the planet. The goal is to prevent collisions between active as well as defunct satellites, and avoid creating even more fast-moving space junk.
For picking up where the space shuttle left off. In September, SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract to ferry NASA personnel to and from the International Space Station. It was a milestone for the commercial space industry’s most high-profile company, and an indication of the versatility of the Dragon capsule, a vehicle that’s been making orbital supply runs for years, but that’s now being entrusted to bring manned spaceflight back to U.S. shores for the first time since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
For democratizing satellite video. At the beginning of 2014, Skybox Imaging was a small company with a lot of buzz, having just launched its first micro satellite (with hopes of eventually deploying 23 more) and captured the first commercial high-definition footage of the Earth from orbit. By the end of the year, Skybox had sent a second microsat into space and demonstrated the data-rich benefits of satellite video, such as counting every car in a given Walmart parking lot, and was acquired by its Mountain View, California, neighbor, Google, for $500 million.
For making satellites more self-sufficient. Along with showing progress toward a privately funded European space plane, with a successful drop test in May, Airbus has been hired to build a satellite that’s both low-mass and high-powered, able to lift itself to a significantly higher orbit after being deployed. The EUTELSAT 172B’s electric-only propulsion will reduce launch costs, and one of the satellite’s primary missions will provide robust Internet access where it’s never been before—to airplanes crossing the Pacific Ocean.
For running rockets on natural gas. After years in stealth mode, Blue Origin announced this past September a partnership that could change the economics of spaceflight. The company, which until now was largely known for being founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is developing a rocket for aerospace heavyweight United Launch Alliance powered by liquefied natural gas. Along with being cheaper than traditional rocket fuels, natural gas is nontoxic and less destructive to ground equipment, further reducing the costs associated with satellite launches.
For sampling celestial bodies with space-ready robots. In a single year, Honeybee Robotics has won a flurry of contracts to help NASA collect samples from comets, asteroids, and Venus. The New York-based company also develops robotics for terrestrial applications, but we’re highlighting its contributions to the space industry due to its staggering number of NASA contracts—10 separate awards in 2014—as well as its heavy involvement in that agency’s ambitious plan to drag an asteroid into our moon’s orbit for prolonged study and material extraction.